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Rose Steward: YES on 34 Advocate and Survivor of Serial Killer

Voices from law enforcemement, the innocent, and murder victim's family members are the driving force behind California's Yes on 34 campaign to replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possiblity of parole.
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Voices from law enforcemement, the innocent, and murder victim's family members are the driving force behind California's Yes on 34 campaign to replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possiblity of parole. As the official proponent of this historic iniative and the former warden of California's death row, I've had the pleasure to meet and work with some incredible and courageous people who are sharing their personal stories in order to urge voters to vote yes on 34 on Tuesday. One of these individuals is J. Rose Steward and here is her story.

Rose Steward: YES on 34 Advocate and Survivor of Serial Killer
By J. Rose Steward

Like most 21 year-olds, the death penalty wasn't something I had put a lot of thought into. I was vaguely aware, like most people, that it was applied disproportionately to minorities and the poor. But I was just moving into my first apartment, my whole life was ahead of me, and it was a time filled with opportunity and expectation.

And then something happened that compelled me to take the issue seriously.

It was 1984, and I had just celebrated my 22nd birthday. Days earlier, my neighbor had kicked out a particularly annoying house guest who kept coming over to my apartment uninvited and hanging around. I complained to his host, who asked him to leave.

On the night of March 29, I went to bed around midnight and fell into a deep sleep.At 1:28 am I awoke to a man standing over me with a knife, and my life as I knew it ceased to exist.

The man who attacked me that night, the one that my neighbor asked to leave, who sexually assaulted me, dragged me around the apartment by my neck for 5 hours, playing cat and mouse with his terrified captive, turned out to be a serial killer. In the two weeks following my escape he killed 5 young women, leaving a trail of bodies that stretched from San Francisco to San Diego.

I was lucky in that my attacker was apprehended. However, it took eight long years to wrap up the three trials that followed. My assailant was sentenced to death for the murders and now sits on San Quentin's Death Row. For me, he received 56 years. When the defense argued that the sentence was too stiff given that I survived, the judge countered, in a moment of profound empathy, that on the contrary, in his view I had died not once but several times, and the only difference was that I was going to have to find a way to live with that.

And I can tell you, living with that, even 27 years later, is hard. I was strangled that night, twice. Confronting the capacity of a fellow human being to inflict such cruelty on another changed me forever. The sensation of re-living the experience every time I hear a similar story on the news compels me to ask one simple question: What can we do to make this stop?

My search for answers has repeatedly led me away from the death penalty. If I believed in my heart it could save the life of just one person, I would support it. But it does not. The vast majority of violent offenders are products of abuse, neglect, drug use, poverty, or, mental illness, and my attacker was no exception. A psyche thus damaged does not respond to the threat of tougher sentencing. Over the last 20 years, states that have replaced the death penalty consistently show lower rates of murder than those who still have it on the books. Even some of its most vocal supporters have admitted that it does not act as a deterrent.

The cost of providing for these killers for the rest of their lives in another reason cited in support of capital punishment. In fact the process of prosecuting a death penalty case is far more expensive than the sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Independent estimates project that replacing it will save California $130 million each year, money that can be re-directed toward getting more killers off the streets.

But there are other important considerations, those of justice.

My heart goes out to those on the other side of this issue, who have suffered as a result of violent crime. I have met with, and wept with, such people, and I mean no disrespect in my disagreement with them. I have also met many crime victims who, like me, oppose the death penalty. The process is so costly, so cumbersome, that rather than provide a timely end to a painful chapter, it draws it out for years, even decades, so that those involved are denied the opportunity to pick up the pieces of their lives and begin healing. We could eliminate the many protections in place, but then we will soon be executing people of questionable guilt or mental competence as they have so famously done in Texas, and this is inexcusable.

One thing I am certain of is that the prospect of getting that call telling me that my attacker's execution is imminent has had me feeling torn, and at some level holding my breath, for nearly three decades now. I dread that day. There is no justice in that.

My primary focus is on what we can do to make this all stop, and the death penalty does not survive that test. How can we say with credibility that murder is abhorrent, an abomination, and then turn around and commit the act ourselves? It's understandable that we want to, but the question is, should we. Does the death penalty work, or does it ultimately compromise all of us by bringing us down to the level of the very people we wish to protect ourselves from? For me, it isn't sympathy, it isn't coddling, to resist with every fiber of my being the desire, no matter how justified, to resemble in any way the man who took from me the life I might have had.

Proposition 34 draws a bold and clear line between who we are and what we stand for versus the killers in our midst. It eliminates the unacceptable possibility of our killing an innocent, saves the state desperately needed funds that can be used to focus on catching criminals, and provides for public safety by consigning killers to life without the possibility of parole. Please vote yes on Proposition 34.

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